Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, uses high-energy waves similar to X-rays, or particles, to kill cancer cells.
When is radiation therapy used?
Radiation therapy can be used on its own for stage 1, 2 or 3 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) under certain conditions. One condition is when surgery is not possible due to other medical conditions. Another is when a stage 3 cancer is close to the heart. And still another is when a cancer is hard to reach.
A common treatment regimen is daily doses of radiation on weekdays for four to seven weeks. Another is three times a day for 12 days with no breaks. The no-break option is called continuous hyperfractionated accelerated radiotherapy (CHART).
Radiation therapy can also be used after surgery in cases where a surgeon was unable to remove cancer completely or when it spread to lymph nodes.
In addition, radiation can be combined with chemotherapy to treat small cell lung cancer (SCLC) if the cancer is only on one side of the lung. In these cases, radiation usually starts around the second cycle of chemotherapy. When radiation is used to prevent a cancer from returning, it is administered after the cancer has shrunk or disappeared.
What happens during treatment?
Radiation-administering machines are big and can be scary at first sight.
Some are fixed in one position, others rotate around the body. Some machines make whirring or beeping sounds so they have places to plug in music players to make it easier on patients.
Radiographers help position patients. They will be in a room with a CCTV screen to follow the treatment. A patient must lie very still as radiation is administered.
What are the side effects of radiation?
Side effects of radiation usually show up a few days after the beginning of treatment. They worsen as treatment continues. They finally start improving one to two weeks after the treatment ends.
Side effects vary from person to person. They can include:
- Tiredness and weakness, which increase as treatment continues. People who receive radiation therapy often feel the need to sleep after each session. But research indicates that gentle exercise after treatment can improve patients’ energy levels.
- Feeling or being sick. Anti-sickness medicines are the only option for this.
- Reddening or darkening of areas of skin where radiotherapy beams enter and leave the body. Although these areas can feel sore, they will disappear two to four weeks after the end of treatment.
- Sore mouth and throat, making it difficult to swallow drinks or food, especially if hot. Painkillers can help reduce the soreness, and soft foods such as soups and stews can make swallowing easier.
- Dry or phlegmy cough, which may be a signal of a chest infection.
- Hair loss.
- Chest pain.
The side effects of radiation therapy can be worse when combined with chemotherapy.
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